Monday, August 29, 2022

Simple Gifts: The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, KY

Note: this is a repost from my "purged" materials, originally appearing on another blog in early October 2015, shortly before that year's JASNA AGM. I share it again now having recently revisited Pleasant Hill. I will share my updated impressions next week. Please enjoy.

Aerial view of Pleasant Hill
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight, 

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

                     – Words and Lyrics by Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848
Ooooh I’m suffering from major AGM envy! Several of my fellow Austen Authors are gathered in Louisville, KY right now for the JASNA Annual General Meeting, and it absolutely pains me to not be there, especially as I have a great attachment to Louisville, where my husband went to school and my in-laws live. But my place in the world is now Switzerland, which truly is a “valley of love and delight.” So I may not be able to partake of the festivities: c’est la vie! What I can do is share a little bit of my knowledge and experiences of my absolutely favorite 19th century historical site in Kentucky: the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.

We receive little hint in Austen of the evangelical and revivalist movements of the 19th century. Mary Bennet is mocked for her religious austerity, but that is about as close as we come. However, the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a boom time for dissenters, or those who interpreted christianity in a manner differing from the Church of England. Unsurprisingly, many persecuted believers found their way to the United States, where they hoped for more religious freedom.

Amazing stairway designed by Micajah Burnett
One of the new sects was the Shakers, or The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, a group that splintered from the larger Quaker movement. Led by “Mother” Ann Lee, whom the group believed to be the second manifestation of Christ, a small group of believers left England for the New World in May of 1774. Ironically, they were imprisoned upon arrival for six months due to their refusal to take an oath of allegiance. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of what became a powerful utopian movement, at its height in the mid-19th century having many thousands of adherents living the Shaker lifestyle in a bevy of communities across the northeast and mid-west.

There are a few (like four) Shakers still living in their community at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, but the groups fierce belief in abstinence prevented it from ever becoming mainstream. Shaker men and women, who were considered completely equal within the community and divided all leadership roles, lived in separated communal houses. All property was shared. Everyone worked in the self-supporting communities, as the act of labor was considered a path to god. I’ve always wondered how much abstinence fueled the amazing creations the Shakers produced (need to channel that energy somewhere), for they were incredibly innovative, inventing such things as the first washing machine. The Village at Pleasant Hill is an architectural marvel. Brother Micajah Burnett, who joined the group with his parents at the age of 17, was a self-taught architect who designed the main buildings in the village, using innovative techniques to create large, open spaces, minimizing obstructive beams and supports. The buildings are in amazing condition all these years later. The acoustics in the Meetinghouse he designed are phenomenal. As Shaker worship involves ecstatic singing and dancing, the entire room must have erupted with their voices, clapping, and stomping. Above the main floor of the Meetinghouse was the housing for the village elders: two women and two men.

Attic of the Meetinghouse designed by Micajah Burnett
When I visited Pleasant HiIl we were taken into the attic of the Meetinghouse to see the impressive beams and supports. It is architecturally astounding, but also very dusty. My allergies becoming unbearable while our tour guide spoke, I excused myself and returned, alone, to the living quarters for the elders. The walls were decorated with photographs of Shakers over the years, and I was diligently studying these when something bumped into me, swinging my purse around so that it collided with my chest. I spun around to see who it was, but there was no one there. Keep in mind that while the living quarters are separated into rooms, it is still a very minimalistic space. There were no walls, pillars, or furnishing anywhere near me. I am not one to have otherworldly experiences – this is the only one I can claim – but the absolute sense of peace that filled me when this encounter occurred was truly one of the most thrilling moments of my life. Whatever or whoever it was, the experience filed me with an unshakable (ha ha) belief that the adherents of this way of life truly did create something heavenly on Earth. To visit the Shaker village is, in someways, to become a believer.

The Shakers were pacifists, like the Quakers, and were the first religious group to receive an exemption form military service during the Civil War. Though they were anti-slavery, they tended to both Union and Confederate forces who found their way to the communities. There were many African-American members, who were considered and treated as true equals in a time when even the staunchest abolitionists tended to believe in white superiority. As the members did not have children (unless the family joined as a unit), foundlings and orphans provided population stability. At age 21, members could choose to stay or remain. Most chose to leave, for no matter how prosperous and harmonious life was in the Shaker Villages, abstinence always has and will be a hard sell.

Simple and open interior of the Meetinghouse
I named this post after one of my favorite songs in the world: the Shaker hymnal Simple Gifts. Perhaps the lasting contribution of the Shakers is their music. The below video was filmed many years ago in the Meetinghosue at Pleasant Hill and recreates a Shaker call to worship and service. It is fascinating, but there is one aspect that is not very authentic (other than the fact that Mother Ann never made it to Kentucky), namely the singing. As Shakers believed that god gave everyone a distinct voice, they did not believe in harmonizing their songs. Everyone sang in whatever key was natural to them. The performers in this video are a chorus, and they use elaborate arrangement and harmonization to make it sound good. A real Shaker meeting would be far more cacophonous, but this is probably more pleasant to listen to. Please enjoy, and if any of you AGMers have the opportunity while in Kentucky to visit the Shaker Village, I highly recommend it! There is even a hotel there now so you can stay in the village, and it is only 80 miles outside of Louisville. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Thoughts of Persuasion: Touring the USS Constellation

Amanda Root and CiarĂ¡n Hinds in Persuasion, 1995

"If you had been a week later at Lisbon, last spring, Frederick, you would have been asked to give a passage to Lady Mary Grierson and her daughters."

"Should I? I am glad I was not a week later then."

The Admiral abused him for his want of gallantry. He defended himself; though professing that he would never willingly admit any ladies on board a ship of his, excepting for a ball, or a visit, which a few hours might comprehend.

"But, if I know myself," said he, "this is from no want of gallantry towards them. It is rather from feeling how impossible it is, with all one's efforts, and all one's sacrifices, to make the accommodations on board such as women ought to have. There can be no want of gallantry, Admiral, in rating the claims of women to every personal comfort high, and this is what I do. I hate to hear of women on board, or to see them on board; and no ship under my command shall ever convey a family of ladies anywhere, if I can help it."

This brought his sister upon him.

"Oh! Frederick! But I cannot believe it of you. --All idle refinement! --Women may be as comfortable on board, as in the best house in England. I believe I have lived as much on board as most women, and I know nothing superior to the accommodations of a man-of-war. I declare I have not a comfort or an indulgence about me, even at Kellynch Hall," (with a kind bow to Anne), "beyond what I always had in most of the ships I have lived in; and they have been five altogether." - Persuasion
USS Constellation, Baltimore Harbor, Maryland

We had an adventure! After three years away, my family spent a month in the United States this summer. It was a whirlwind trip, despite its length, and while we got to see an enormous number of relations (I've counted 95), I am still recovering a week after our return. One of our side jaunts was to Baltimore Harbor, an old stomping ground, where we toured the USS Constellation, a sloop-of-war built in 1854. Yes, this is a US ship, and yes, it is more modern than the ships Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft would have captained, but it gave me a wonderful notion of what life at sea might have been like in the early 19th century (the Constellation was the last sail-only warship crafted by the US Navy). The conversations about life at sea held at Uppercross weighed on my mind as I drifted between the decks. Could Mrs. Croft be so comfortable as she declares onboard? Is Wentworth simple misogynistic, or might the presence of women and children be legitimately challenging?

Captain's Quarters, facing the stern
Captain's Quarters, facing the bow

Captain's Berth
I always admired Mrs. Croft's spirit, and while similarly non-fussy ladies might indeed make the most of life at sea, I imagine many more would find the circumstances trying. The captain's quarters, which film and story suggest would be ceded to traveling ladies, are reasonably spacious. Located in the aft of the gun deck, a large and inviting dining/conference area has small rooms along each side, which include a bedroom, a washroom, an office, a pantry, and a guest berth. Lady Mary Grierson and daughters, however many they number, would surely have filled the space to capacity. They might have a great deal of privacy and comfort, unless the ship suddenly saw action. Those 18 cannons right outside this oasis surely made a terrifying racket, even without considering the larger ramifications and possible consequences to their being manned. And where would this leave a displaced captain? Down a deck in the berth, where everyone else slept. Here each officer and the doctor had their own small closet for quarters, while everyone else slept in hammocks hung from the ceiling. The Constellation could house up to 265 enlisted men and 21 officers (the modern tour does not attempt to replicate what this must have smelled like). 

Captain's Study
Even with their sleeping quarters on different decks, your typical english lady traveling on a warship would be thrust into very close proximity to exactly the kind of man (i.e. ungentlemanly, with all that term's classist trappings) from which their entire upbringings had been designed to shield them. Discipline in the Navy was strict, and Lady Mary would have had little to fear for her daughters' vaunted "purity," but the experience would have to be educational, to say the least. 

Is this "idle refinement?" I'm not sure. Note that Mrs. Croft is childless and makes no claims regarding the
presence of a larger family onboard (just touring the ship with two kids was a challenge). And what of women who did not have the gentility to be deemed "ladies?" I doubt anything but the most extraordinary of circumstances would land one aboard. Should such a thing occur, perhaps a gallant captain would still provide her with those protections granted to a female of higher class, otherwise she would be in for a harrowing experience, indeed, and perhaps would have even preferred to remain marooned on an island, or wherever she came from, than endure it.

These dark musings aside, I highly recommend a visit to the USS Constellation, if possible. It has definitely given me a hunger for more old ships. I'm not sure the kids feel the same way, but I'd love to go to Portsmouth, walk in Fanny Price's footsteps, and visit Nelson's HMS Victory. It's on my bucket list. If I ever make, I will surely regale readers with an account of the experience here.

And of Baltimore is not one of your upcoming destinations, or if you just want more information about the Constellation, go ahead and check out the virtual tour: There are also interactive images of each deck to explore. Enjoy!